In social history circles, South Africa’sCharles VanOnselenis widely regarded as a rock star. His works combine the analytical rigour of social history, with its focus on structural change and the experiences of ordinary people, with an elegantly descriptive writing style more commonly associated with narrative approaches to the discipline. What emerges from this mixture, when applied to the sprawling and often messy canvas of the past, is a richly textured portrait that brings history into colourful and vivid view.
“Three Wise Monkeys” is Van Onselen’s latest work, a just-published trilogy that explores the relations between Portugal’s fragile colony on the southeast coast of Africa and South Africa.
“The wisdom of the Three Wise Monkeys came to southern Africa via English, from the West, replete with a cultural coding that encouraged settler ideologies of denial, rootedness and silence when confronted by moral ambiguities. In a setting where colonialism and imperialism posed questions of profound ethical importance about issues of conquest, occupation and gross dispossession, the willingness to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil had some appeal,” Van Onselen writes.
The contrasts between the two settings were – and are – many and profound.
What became modern Mozambique was Lusophone, Catholic, commercial and rural, mired in a sandy and unyielding soil vulnerable to drought and deluge. South Africa was Anglophone and Protestant – with more than a touch of scowling Calvinist austerity – that rapidly industrialised and urbanised after the dazzling discoveries of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century plugged it firmly into the financial systems of the north.
For the black majorities of both settings, this jarring juxtaposition and the unequal relationships that evolved in its wake left them prey to grotesque levels of exploitation that contributed in no small way to the building of the biggest gold mining industry in history, while leaving Mozambique stranded on the sands of underdevelopment
Van Onselen traces the makings of this economic tragedy partly through the insightful prism of thelong duration– or the “long term”, a historical approach linked to the Annales school of thought and scholars such as Fernand Braudel. A wide-angle lens and long view bring the structural changes that underpin history into clear focus, including the linkages between the past and the present.
Van Onselen also cites the work of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his view that the “nation” precedes the “state”. But Van Onselen notes that in “newly-independent countries, erected over former arbitrarily defined colonial territories, ‘states’ are more frequently called upon to construct ‘nations’ than the other way around.”
Contemporary southern Africa, for Van Onselen, provides “a fascinating reconciliation for the historical concerns of Braudel and Hobsbawm”.
Fictional “nations” now preside over “states” that are in many ways fictional, but the consequences are not the stuff of fiction. They are all too real.
“Southern Africa should be viewed, primarily, as a zone of transactional economic activity where interconnectedness and interdependence over thelong durationhave given rise to asymmetric cultural, demographic, social and political exchanges,” Van Onselen writes.
And the mess that is South Africa and its “state” come under withering scrutiny through this prism, even if it and colonial and imperialist interests benefited from this unequal exchange.
“South Africa does and does not have borders, barely a hundred years old. Their outlines emerged from a mess of Dutch, English, German and Portuguese interests in the southern part of a continent where an entirely unremarkable plateau was discovered to be squatting squarely over the largest deposits of gold and diamonds the world has ever known…
“As it enters a post-industrial era scarred by economic decline, the ‘national space’ as originally defined is almost as meaningless as it was prior to the discovery of an underground treasure trove.”
Mozambique, which forms the narrative thrust of the unfolding tragedy mapped out in Volume 1, remains far more impoverished and underdeveloped than South Africa, its borders also largely meaningless lines on a map.
Mozambique’s economic gravity for centuries, in Van Onselen’s rendering, was northeast, and slavery was among the pulls.
“For much of the 19th century, Mozambique figured largely as a robber economy, not unlike King Leopold’s Congo Free State, depleting its human and material resources over vast swathes of the interior, including the capturing and auctioning-off of African men, women and children into slavery.”
Thetermsystem, based on feudal notions of land grants, set the tone for patterns of rural land ownership. Its inherent inefficiencies, combined with an incapable state administration, produced little in the way of returns or investment – or viable cash crops. Ivory from elephant hunting and wax taken from beehives became key exports – in short, an economy precariously underpinned by the prehistoric activities of hunting and gathering.
“In an unpromising setting, where the difficulty of raising commercially viable crops was trumped by the presence of an apparently fertile black population, European landlords and the state preferred farming people to plants,” Van Onselen writes.
When slavery was outlawed in Zanzibar in 1876, Arab and Swahili traders turned their attention south to northern Mozambique. Indeed, an Arab trade in slaves from Mozambique persisted into the 20th century, until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.
By that time, the industrial revolution unleashed in South Africa by its recently unearthed and staggering minerals endowment was drawing Mozambique into its economic sphere. And South Africa’s emerging mining industry coveted the quarry of Arab slavers.
“Active slaving at remote sites… drove many of the remaining displaced persons towards the periphery and into the waiting arms of those in search of indentured labour,” Van Onselen notes – a case of leaping from the frying pan into the fire.
The Sul do Save, or Mozambique south of the Save River, would become the main source for this system of migrant labour that would provide the raw muscle for South Africa’s mining industry.
Van Onselen has already covered much of this ground in his previous book “The Night Trains,” a searing look at the nocturnal trains that delivered Mozambican workers to and from the Highveld mines in appalling and prison-like conditions.
“… creating wealth from consistent but extremely low-grade ore buried in reefs dipping away at increasing depths meant that from the outset, the Witwatersrand mines demanded enormous quantities of capital and a near-limitless supply of cheap labour if they were to generate profits capable of retaining northern investors,” Van Onselen wrote in “The Night Trains”.
Southern Mozambique today has little to show for the toil of generations of peasants who were put through the industrial meat grinder of South Africa’s mining sector.
Indeed, for over half a century, the real wages of black workers in South Africa’s gold mines actually declined. And for much of the 20th century, the bulk of that workforce was drawn from southern Mozambique.
In “The Makings of an African Economic Tragedy”, Van Onselen takes the “Night Trains” story forward by exploring more deeply the political economy that set the trains and their human cargo into motion.
There are fascinating links with the global timber industry as the mines required the product for underground props. Along the way, Mozambique became locked into financial dependence on South Africa, its weak central bank – in name only, it seems – no match for the new South African Reserve Bank (Sarb), a branch of the Royal Mint and the Rand Refinery, a formidable financial trio that called the economic shots in the region.
South African dependency
Mozambique was effectively colonised twice; first by a fragile Portugal and then by the emerging industrial power of South Africa.
In 1920, a Select Committee was established in South Africa to examine currency and banking reform, paving the way for the establishment of the Sarb. It also led to a temporary halt in the practice of paying black mineworkers – many of whom were suspicious of paper money – in gold coins.
“The choking off of the supply of gold coins from Johannesburg, a source that accounted for a third of all revenue in Mozambique, was felt almost immediately in Lourenco Marques, Bombay and Lisbon,” Van Onselen says, underscoring just how globalised the South African mining sector had become.
The upshot was that Mozambique’s confusing currency situation fell “into even greater disarray”, further weakening the colony which was already turning to the peasantry for its own pound of tax flesh in devilish pacts with South Africa’s mining industry and its recruiting arm, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association.
“In the Sul do Save, the African male peasantry (recently subjected to the horrors of slavery) was sold off to the Rand mining industry as cheap indentured labour – part of a black proletariat in the making largely for purposes of domestic tax collection. Most of these arrangements reached their apex in the Mozambique Convention of 1928, which, within months, was followed by the Great Depression. By the end of the Depression southern Mozambique was, in economic terms, effectively a South African dependency.”
Sinister webs would be spun from this state of affairs, and by 1940 fiscally constrained Lisbon would hit a jackpot.
“From 1940, the migrants’ deferred pay was settled, in gold bullion, at a fixed price agreed by Portugal and South Africa. But… the South Africans were instructed to sell the gold on the world market and the proceeds would then be transferred to the Lourenco Marques administration.”
This had the effect of hijacking half of the migrants’ income which was then redirected to a third party, Portugal, for speculative purposes. From 1940 to 1977, the difference between the official rate paid for the gold and the “price it fetched on the free market widened continuously”. And Portugal booked huge profits from these gold sales.
Rhino poachers in Mozambique and cattle rustlers along the Lesotho frontier are also among its legacies as this underclass turns to new sources of income.
“To date,” Van Onselen points out, “no one in Portugal or South Africa, not even a politician, has advanced the argument that rural southern Mozambique was a notable beneficiary of windfall profits arising from the wages of migrant workers who had, in effect, advanced an interest-free loan to a predatory-commercial minded state and its partner, the (South African) Chamber of Mines.”
Of course, southern Mozambique today has little to show for the toil of generations of peasants who were put through the industrial meat grinder of South Africa’s mining sector.
“By the late 20th century southern Mozambique was among the ten poorest regions on earth. Deep in the sandy scrubland, observers are now often struck by the ecological bareness of a coastal area that, over the centuries, has been visited regularly by climate disaster’s vicious twins – flood and drought.
“For those unfamiliar with the complex history of the province and its deprived peoples, the inhabitants seem – like the indigent in many places – to have been overcome by forms of fatalism, lassitude and resignation,” Van Onselen writes.
Yet it would be wrong, he insists, to portray the peasants of southern Mozambique as helpless actors lacking the agency to perform their own roles on this pernicious stage.
“The enterprise and initiative shown by the first Mozambican plantation labourers and mineworkers in search of gold in southern Africa – a metal that their predecessors knew from pre-colonial times to be an excellent store of value – are not surprising. The possibilities offered through migrancy encouraged them to operate relatively freely in new markets… But much of this fluidity was lost as southern Africa moved from being a region marked by a slowly developing semi-feudal agricultural sector, with limited industrial offshoots, to one dominated by primary extractive industries relying on vast quantities of cheap black labour.”
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What we see emerging here is a racially stratified political economy that became the bedrock of apartheid.
The migrant labour system has since fallen out of fashion, but its legacies can be seen in the rise of the gangster economy in illicit gold mined by zama zamas from Lesotho and Mozambique, whose fathers and grandfathers once provided the bulk of the mining workforce.
Rhino poachers in Mozambique and cattle rustlers along the Lesotho frontier are also among its legacies as this underclass turns to new sources of income. We havereportedextensively on this issue and will continue to do so.
The plight of these men and the limited choices they are pursuing can now be seen in a wider historical context thanks to the long arc that Van Onselen has traced in this masterpiece. The current illicit commerce in gold and rhino horn is often following pre-colonial trade routes to markets in Asia and the Middle East, enabled by the failure of southern African states with precarious roots.
The other two volumes in this trilogy, which I will review in the coming weeks, examine issues such as the freedoms that Mozambique and its laid-back Lusophone ways offered to white South Africans from their self-imposed Calvinist constraints.
“Only by seeing, hearing and speaking honestly about the past can we hope to understand a troubled present,” Van Onselen writes.
And our understanding of our present has been enriched by his approach to this daunting, complex and fascinating subject matter.DM/ML